Tri-Cities, WA: The Best of the Reds and More

Barnard Griffin Winery - Barrel Room

Eastern Washington Red Mountain American Viticulture Area (AVA) region is named after the “cheatgrass” (Bromius Tectorum) that grows in the area and turns a dark red hue in the spring. The area also boasts some of the best red wines in the state – and there is no cheating about that.

There are a couple of features that make this place special for grape growing.  Foremost is that the south facing slope of this 1,400 ft. mountain absorbs the strong, afternoon summer sun. This results in high levels of Growing Degree Days (GDD).  Winemakers look at GDD (based on temperatures above 50F) as a benchmark for the quality of wine. The Red Mountain AVA has the highest GDD value in Washington and one of the highest in the entire U.S. West Coast. The area also enjoys steady winds and low humidity, both of which retard mildew formations. Mildew is a very common issue in wine growing regions like Napa, California, and can cause harm to the crop.

A great way to get to know the area and all is has to offer is to attend the Revelry Wine Event, which was held this year at Col Solare Winery http://www.colsolare.com/winery.  There were more than 20 wineries represented at this annual event and, after the intense two-hour tasting at the beginning of the weekend, we all agreed that this AVA has a lot to boast about.

Love at First Sight

A great way to become familiar with a wine is to learn the human story behind it. David and Patricia Gelles are great examples. They are the owners of Klipsun Vineyards http://klipsun.com/in Benton City, Red Mountain AVA. Their site was recently named by a prestigious magazine as one of the top 25 legendary sites to grow grapes.

 Wine growing Washington.

The Tri-Cities of Washington has some of the best climate and soil for growing wine grapes.

The Gelles were living in England in the early 1970’s, but didn’t actually meet until they were both in Switzerland for a ski trip. It was, as they say, love at first sight. David’s job with the Department of Energy at the Hanford site in Washington brought them to the Tri-Cities area.

While working at Hanford, David and a couple of coworkers, .Jim Holmes and John Williams, decided that it would be fun to take a wine making class at Columbia Basin College. A short while later, Jim and John started a vineyard and became very successful at winemaking. David and Patricia took the plunge in the early 80’s and purchased a vineyard. Their grapes were so good, Patricia was soon known as “The Queen of the Mountain.” Their premium grapes are used by some of the elite wineries in the region to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.

Another way to get to know a great wine is by pairing it with some great food. This evening’s offerings came from Bin No 20 Steak, Seafood and Wine Bar http://www.bin20.com/.

The sushi rolls, braised lamb and porcini mushrooms paired deliciously well with the wines. Adding Nature’s blessing to the evening was the beautiful sunset. The event was hosted by Auction of Washington Wines – with part of the proceeds going to Children’s Hospital.

More Delicious Wines

Although the evening of wine tasting ended, tomorrow was another day. There are 200 wineries within an hour’s drive of the Tri-Cities so there are plenty of choices.

The Barnard -Griffin Winery

The Barnard -Griffin Winery is one of the great family-owned wineries in the Tri-Cities area.

Rob Griffin of Bernard Griffin Winery http://www.barnardgriffin.com/  was the next visit on our weekend adventure. Rob received his degree at UC Davis and graduated Cum Laude in fermentation science. Rob then took his skills to Eastern Washington in the late 1970’s and was winemaker at Preston Premium Wines http://www.prestonwines.com/ , the third licensed winery in Washington. Rob went on to work at other prestigious wineries in Eastern Washington and, in the early 1980’s, he and his wife Deborah Bernard started winemaking for themselves.

Over the years their winemaking expanded and Barnard Griffin Winery has won many awards. As is the case in many family-owned wineries – it really is a family enterprise.  Deborah’s fused glass art work will be displayed in their new wine bar. Their two daughters are also involved, Megan as staff enologist and Elise as marketing director.

Next on the agenda: another family business with deep roots in the wine tradition, Griffin’s neighbor J. Bookwalter Winery http://www.bookwalterwines.com/. Jerry Bookwalter is another transplant from UC Davis. Jerry graduated in 1963 with a degree in viticulture and migrated to Washington in the late 1970’s. He worked with a winemaker to produce some quality wines and is now the manager at Connor Lee Vineyard. Jerry’s son John is the winemaker at J Bookwalter Winery and purchases the grapes for his wine from Connor Lee.

John is continuing a long Bookwalter family tradition in agriculture that began in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century. And while not a member of his family, his wine consultant Zelma Long is truly a pioneer in a male dominated industry. When she enrolled in a Masters of Enology and Viniculture degree program at UC Davis in 1968, she was the second woman ever to do so and the only woman in her class. Zelma has gone on to consult for many of the best winemakers in the world.

For lunch, we moved on to Taverna Tagaris, which is part of the Tagaris Winery http://www.tagariswines.com. The pizza and the Greek lamb gurger were simply out of this world. Michael Taggares founded the winery in 1987, naming it in the proper Greek spelling of his family name. The Tagaris family roots in winemaking go back in Greek history to the early 1300’s.

Pool at Clover Island Inn

The Clover Island Inn, located right on the mighty Columbia-River, is a great place from which to base your Tri-Cities exploration.

It was another day of great food and wine, so it was easy to retire to our weekend home, Clover Island Inn http://www.clover-island-inn.com/. The river view room came with lovely sound-effects of the water lapping against the shore of the Columbia River.

Hiking, Farmer’s Market

Awake, dressed and out at 6 a.m. then back to the Inn by 8 a.m.. That is the time it took to drive to the Badger Mountain Trailhead http://www.friendsofbadger.org/ , hike up the 1.5 miles and 800 feet gain to view some of the wildflowers and the vista and get back to the Inn. The view from the top of the Columbia River and the surrounding farmland was terrific.

Of course, you don’t have to do this hike at 6 a.m., but it is a perfect temperature, no one else is on the trail, and it ensures plenty of time after for another day of adventures.

Pasco Farmers Market

If you're in the Pasco area on a summer weekend, don't miss the Pasco Farmer's Market.

For fresh produce, arts and crafts venders, and lots of delicious bakery goods don’t miss Pasco Farmers Market. http://www.pascofarmersmarket.org/about/ . Although the arts and crafts were interesting, the fresh farm produce and bakery goods were front and center. (And a great way to take home some of the local flavor.)

The next stop at the Country Mercantile  http://countrymercantile.com/ was an olfactory delight. No need to be told that you are near a chocolate factory as you walk into the Mercantile. Along with the wonderful aroma – samples of some of the 100 different varieties of chocolates they make were supplied by Max while giving us a tour of the factory. And, after sampling the chocolates, we moved onto sample the home-made ice cream. (Hey – life is short, eat dessert first.) After indulging in “dessert-first,” we moved on to some of the traditional Mexican foods (salsas, tamales, enchiladas, tortillas, etc.) made here by Max and some of his 25 relatives who work at the Mercantile. The Mercantile was started back in 1996 by Jay and Janece Wood as a small produce stand offering seasonal fruits and vegetables. It’s grown into something quite wonderfully different.

After all that good food, a 23-mile walk almost sounded like a good idea. The Sacagawea Heritage Trail is a 23-mile paved trail along the Columbia River, lined with flowers in the spring and with views of boats floating down the Columbia. On a bicycle, 23 miles would be a breeze, on our feet – six of the 23 miles made a little bit more sense.

Country Mercantile Tri-Cities, Washington

At the Country Mercantile, the homemade chocolates are to die for.

Of course, the best way to see a river is from the river itself. Thus going to Columbia Kayak Adventures was our last stop. http://www.columbiakayakadventures.com/tours.html. Guide and owner Chris Vowels has many different tours on the Columbia. His most popular tour is a short two-hour float down the river by kayak. We did some paddling while bird watching and exploring some of the small islands. But really – the best part was to lay back and let the slow smooth current carry us along.

The Tri-Cities is such a short trip from the noise and traffic of Seattle.However,  the colors, smells, and tastes of this desert oasis will linger, and call us back soon. – by Michael Fagin

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